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Publisher Chosen for State Exams

Education: Board rejects superintendent's recommendation, ignores districts' pleas to wait.

November 15, 1997|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A Texas-based publisher who already provides tests for schools in Los Angeles and about 50 other California communities Friday won the right to provide the grade-by-grade exams that will make it possible to see how 4 million students in the state stack up against their peers nationally.

In choosing Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement, the State Board of Education rejected the advice of state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who had recommended the selection of a company whose tests are more widely used.

The board also turned aside the pleas of the superintendents of the state's largest school systems who, in a flurry of telephone calls and faxes, urged it to ignore a new state law and not choose any test until new statewide learning standards are established.

But the 9-2 vote fulfilled a long-standing ambition of Gov. Pete Wilson for the state to provide parents with some measure of their children's academic progress. "For the first time ever, this test . . . will give us individual, comparable test scores for every student in grades two through 11," Wilson said.

"We're finally, at long last, the biggest state in the union, moving to a system where we have the beginnings of accountability," said board member Janet Nicholas.

She and her colleagues refused, however, to explain why they selected Harcourt over two other companies--CTB/McGraw Hill and Riverside Publishing--that bid for the lucrative five-year contract to provide the tests. Board members said they had been advised by their staff that giving reasons would provide the losing companies with ammunition for a lawsuit.

Seven outside reviewers hired by the board concluded that any of the three testing companies could satisfy the state law, but did outline some differences in content, philosophy and cost.

The winning testing program--Harcourt Brace's Stanford 9--is considered more traditional than CTB's Terra Nova test, which downplays the importance of calculation and vocabulary. But the Stanford 9 places less emphasis than Riverside on skills such as spelling, punctuation and capitalization.

Although the state had allocated as much as $34.5 million annually for the test, based on an estimate of $8 per pupil per year, Harcourt Brace committed to do the job for less than the other firms--about $12 million yearly, $2.89 per student.

Students in grades two through eight will be tested in reading, spelling and math. In grades nine through 11, the tests will also address history and science.

Just after selecting the test, the board took another step toward standardizing and elevating the quality of the state's public schools. The board voted unanimously to endorse the first statewide "standards" for language arts.

Unveiled in August, those standards stress the importance of phonics and spelling and suggest that students by the fourth grade ought to be reading half a million words annually outside the classroom.

Those standards are to be followed next month by standards for math and, a year from now, similar documents laying out what students ought to know in science, social studies and history. Those documents then will be the basis for a customized series of California tests--though those exams will not produce scores for individual students.

Wilson proposed last spring that the state buy a separate commercial test for immediate use, but met strong opposition from educators and in the Legislature. To force the Legislature's hand, he vetoed about $200 million in education spending, later restored.

Eastin had reluctantly recommended the CTB/McGraw Hill tests, saying she would prefer not to have any statewide test until standards are in place in all subjects. Eastin said the tests selected are not challenging enough, especially for high school students. She said the 11th-grade math test, for instance, includes material students should know in seventh grade.

"You've got to get the test publisher to upgrade the test to raise the standards," Eastin said. "That's the point of this whole exercise--to get kids to achieve at a higher level."

Others criticized the board's action more harshly.

"We think it's a big waste of time, energy and money," said Lloyd Porter, a Yorba Linda teacher who monitors the board's actions for the California Teachers Assn. union.

School superintendents from San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and elsewhere worried, meanwhile, how they will be judged if their students--many poor or immigrants--do badly.

They decried the fact that students who come from other countries must be tested in English after only a year in school here. In addition, Harcourt Brace does not have tests in languages other than Spanish and English. The superintendents said that violates the rights of children who speak one of 80 other languages in the state.

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